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“You Had To Be There…”: The Photography of Helen Levitt (1913-2009)

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

Photography worked hard to become recognized as an art form in the first half of the 20th century. Along with fellow documentary photographic pioneers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, Helen Levitt‘s style married composition with spontaneity. Known for her ability to capture the lives of children on the streets of New York, Levitt’s work is marked by a juxtaposition of playfulness and poignancy. Like her female photographic contemporaries (like Dorothea Lange) Levitt’s images provided a social commentary on and called attention to the lives of children in the city, particularly her work in some of the poorer neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side.

Though not concerned with technical skill, Levitt’s pictures nonetheless contain a studied, almost painterly elegance, which Levitt gleaned and honed with frequent visits to museums and galleries. She worked as a press photographer in the 1930s and 40s, while at the same time producing an impressive collection of her own work with her Leica camera in black and white as well as color. In addition, Levitt worked as a film editor and director, collaborating with good friend and artistic influence James Agee, on the short film “In the Street.”

Helen Levitt’s legacy lies in her ability to seek out and translate visually the subtle beauty of seemingly mundane daily activities of American youth.  She paid tribute to their place in society and gave insight into their worlds in a respectful, almost reverent way.

Listen to an interview with Helen Levitt on NPR’s “All Things Considered” here.

Pick up books of her work through Powerhouse Books.

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